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Poll: Those who help terminally ill loved ones die shouldn’t be prosecuted

MONTREAL (CP) — While Jack Kevorkian, Sue Rodriguez and Robert Latimer are the names most often cited in the debate over euthanasia and mercy killing, a new poll suggested they were far from alone in their beliefs on the subject.

The poll, conducted by Leger Marketing and made available to The Canadian Press, indicated 75.5 per cent of Canadians believed someone who has helped end the life of a loved one suffering from an incurable and extremely painful illness should not be prosecuted.

A total of 16.3 per cent of respondents said someone in that situation should face prosecution, while 8.1 per cent said they did not know or refused to answer.

Leger Marketing surveyed 1,507 people across the country between June 5 and 13. The national results are considered accurate within plus or minus 2.6 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

On a regional basis, the poll indicated that 84.1 per cent of Quebecers opposed prosecution. Other breakdowns for those against prosecution were British Columbia, 76.8 per cent; the Atlantic provinces, 75.2 per cent; Ontario, 75.1 per cent; Alberta, 64.1 per cent; and Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 61.6 per cent.

The margins of error for the regional breakdowns are higher than the national margin of error.

In the case of an incurable, extremely painful illness affecting themselves, 57.4 per cent of those surveyed said they would have wanted help to die. Thirty-four per cent said they would not, while 8.6 per cent did not answer or said they didn’t know.

Jean-Marc Leger, president of Leger Marketing, said it’s significant that many people who wouldn’t necessarily choose euthanasia for themselves would also not want to see someone else prosecuted for helping a loved one die.

“These people were sensitized by the Rodriguez and Latimer cases,” Leger said in an interview.

“That’s how you can explain the difference. It’s very, very clear that high-profile cases in Canada have touched Canadians.”

The debate over mercy killing and euthanasia, and the laws and penalties related to those acts, has repeatedly become heated in Canada. In 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 5-4 against Sue Rodriguez’ bid for assisted suicide. A year later the Victoria-area woman, who had the debilitating Lou Gehrig’s disease, died after an anonymous doctor agreed to give her a lethal injection. (JH: not true)

Robert Latimer, who has said he killed his severely disabled 12-year-old daughter to ease her suffering, is serving a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for 10 years after being convicted of second-degree murder. Thousands of people have signed petitions asking for clemency or a reduced sentence for what they have called an act of mercy by a distraught father. But some groups are fighting just as hard to see the Saskatchewan farmer serve his full term.

Meanwhile, Kevorkian continues to make headlines as he awaits a judge’s decision on his bid for bail pending his appeal of a 1999 second-degree murder conviction. The 73-year-old doctor is in a Michigan jail serving a 10- to 25-year sentence. He claims he has attended more than 130 suicides.

Kevorkian was convicted after a videotape showing him administering a lethal injection to a 52-year-old man with Lou Gehrig’s disease aired on the CBS program 60 Minutes.

The results of the Leger poll came as no surprise to Svend Robinson, an NDP MP who has for years called on the federal government to hold public hearings on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide and reform the law.

“There has been a complete lack of leadership by the Liberal government on this issue,” Robinson said in an interview.

“I think the current law is, in many respects, profoundly cruel in denying terminally ill adults the right to make a decision for themselves as to the circumstances of their death.” (JH: Robinson has had TEN years to build political alliances with other MPs on this issue and failed to do so).

Last year, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia. But the Campaign Life Coalition is among those groups lobbying the Canadian government to leave the laws and penalties as they are.

“We have to have respect for life from the beginning, when a child is first conceived, to its natural end,” said Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer for the group, which describes itself as the political arm of the pro-life movement.

“That means not hurrying someone along.”

Douglas said pain management is the key for those who are suffering with an incurable illness.

If that pain could be better managed, the number of people who wouldn’t want someone prosecuted for helping their loved one die would likely drop substantially, she said.